Airstrips cry out for facelift as decades of neglect manifest

Kakamega Airstrip as on 30/06/14, whose operations stalled due to poor construction work of the facility. [Chrispen Sechere, Standard]
Four airstrips in Western Kenya are in a desolate state despite constant efforts to give them a makeover.

Bungoma, Matulo, Busia and Kakamega airstrips were among 24 across the country earmarked for a major facelift by the Jubilee administration.

Nonetheless, chances of the facilities once again welcoming and hosting customers are remote, going by their current sorry state.

There was excitement when National Assembly Transport Committee toured the facilities in March 2017 on a fact-finding mission.

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Nonetheless, little came out of the trip even after the legislators prepared a report recommending the upgrade of the facilities.

Earlier, the national government promised to allocate Sh500 million for the expansion of Kakamega Airstrip in the 2017/18 budget.

More land

The funds were to be used to purchase more land for expansion of the runway from 1.3km to at least 2km and create room for commercial flights.

Navakholo MP Emmanuel Wangwe, who led the House committee on the tour, confirmed the availability of the funds.

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“We got the assurance from the Transport Cabinet Secretary that the government has plans to expand the airstrip,” Wangwe said then.

The idea was to construct a new runway as opposed to re-carpeting the old one. The terminal building was to be expanded to include VIP facilities.

Besides, part of the funds would be spent on resettling about 200 families living near the airstrip that borders Kakamega Forest.

Kakamega Deputy Governor Philip Kutima had said 56 acres had been identified in Likuyani where the families would be resettled.

The county government was ready to compensate families who wanted to buy land elsewhere, said Kutima.

But the families were reluctant to move, saying their counterparts evicted in 1981 were never compensated.

Mark Litema, a resident, claimed some leaders behind the eviction were doing it in bad faith. “They want to resettle us in an area where land is not fertile at all,” he said.

Fly 540 and Fly-SAX airlines stopped direct flights from Wilson Airport in Nairobi to Western in May 2014 due to the poor state of Kakamega Airstrip.

Usually, Fly 540 would make trips on Friday and Sunday to Kakamega while Fly-SAX had direct schedules on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday.

Even taxi operators had started realising high returns following the weekly trips by the two private airlines.

Kakamega Lands Executive Alfred Matianyi said the county is pushing for the expansion of the facility.

He said the Kenya Airports Authority (KAA) is expected to put up a warehouse for perishable goods and build a parking, among others.

Matianyi said KAA will re-tarmac the runway ahead of Mashujaa Day celebrations in December. Kakamega will host this year’s celebrations to be graced by President Uhuru Kenyatta.

“Kenya National Highway Authorities (KenhA) is expected to embark on demilition of unwanted structures within 2.5km radius from the airstrip starting next month as part of the expansion process,” he said.

Politicians’ choppers

The manager in charge of the airstrip, Josphat Omachi, was reluctant to divulge any details about the expansion project when reached on the phone.

Bungoma and Matulo airstrips have not been functional, occasionally hosting light aircrafts on their short runways.

Usually, the facilities buzz with life during political seasons, providing a landing space for politicians riding in choppers.

No major airline is currently having a direct flight to Bungoma County and residents and traders are forced to book their flights in Kisumu or Eldoret to Nairobi and Mombasa. John Nalianya, a resident, says he is forced to travel all the way to Kisumu in order to catch a flight whenever he has business dealings in Nairobi or Mombasa.

“This is an inconvenience to us. I spend two hours from Bungoma to Kisumu to get a flight to Nairobi while the flight duration is only 45 minutes. We need direct flights from Bungoma,” said Nalianya.

The runway has been converted into driving school field.

In Busia, things are not different. County Commissioner Jacob Narengo has, however, warned individuals accused of grabbing a section of the facility to vacate.

He says the airstrip is public land and any private development will not be allowed. Individuals have erected food eateries at the abandoned airstrip while private driving schools have converted the runway into a training field.

Other sections of the facility are occupied by mechanics who ply their trade uninterrupted while rusty containers have been dumped on other parts of the airstrip.  

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AirstripAirportJubilee administrationNeglected airstrips